No matter the sport, season, a team’s previous record, who graduated, who didn’t — any of the various other determinants of a team’s success — there will be uncertainty at the onset of the year for every team. It’s inevitable, and it inevitably leads to questions a coach will hope to have answered early in the season.
The most pressing question this fall facing coach Becky Ronquillo and her Damascus High School girls’ volleyball team, a 12-4 Class 3A West Region semifinalist last season, is how to fill the gaping hole left behind by Autumn Jenkins.
Jenkins, now a freshman at the University of Delaware, was the Swarmin’ Hornets’ go-to hitter last season, racking up 166 kills at a 48.4 percent clip. On Monday visiting reigning 4A West region and division champion Walter Johnson, Ronquillo found her answer and then some in what became a 3-0 (25-22, 25-16, 25-11) sweep over the Wildcats. The solution, as senior setter Carly Marella would point out after she dished out 17 assists in the surprisingly casual victory, was that the Swarmin’ Hornets didn’t try to mold one of their hitters into another Jenkins, they simply played to each of their different strengths, taking the problem down by committee.
“Autumn would put a ball down anytime she had one, but they are taking on that role. ... It was a nice kind of jumpstart into the season,” Ronquillo said. “Carly’s hands were on point today, Alex [Nelligan], she was putting them down whether she was either outside or right. She kept going across so I was impressed. And Annika [Schwartz], my other outside, she was very good too.”
Each of Marella’s primary targets come armed with their own little niche and on Monday each found resounding success. There is lefty captain Madison Wyatt, who finished the day with a team-high 10 kills and as many aces. Then, on the outside, there is Schwartz with the cannon dangling off her right shoulder, and Nelligan, a co-captain alongside Wyatt. Together, the trio totaled 26 kills, 17 digs and 13 aces, more than double the amount of kills of Walter Johnson’s entire team.
“It was interesting at first,” Wyatt said. “I’ve been playing club with Autumn since I was 12, but Alex Nelligan and I, the two captains, have been able to step up and fill her shoes. There’s tons of options. You can find us front row, back row, right side — look around and there we are.”
To the Wildcats’ credit, they were playing without top returner Brigid Morris, who was out with a concussion, and, according to coach Bill Morris, had also graduated seven of their other top eight players from last year’s 17-2 team. Damascus, meanwhile, was playing full strength and looked very much the part. Ronquillo’s squad goes well past her four studs, from sophomore blocker Suzanne Brady (six kills, five blocks) to junior back liner Megan Adams, who chipped in with three digs, third on the team to Marella (six) and Schwartz (11).
“That’s hard to explain,” Marella said of how she decides who to set. “It’s just being a setter. You just got to watch the block on the other side to see where the other block is and you just go where they’re not and you can just tell. It all has to fall in the right way.”
On Monday, whether off the left hand of Wyatt or the rights of either Schwartz or Nelligan, the ball seemed to be falling whichever way Marella wanted it to.